Sunday, July 3, 2016


Backstory. By definition, at least according to Wikipedia, it is the history of characters and other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative's start. Its purpose is to give our characters dimension, to have some idea of what's happened in their past to form the people they are now, to have the reader root for the guy  or girl. 

Writers who have taken enough workshops know that you can't dump a bunch of backstory into the first few chapters. Rather, it must be woven in throughout the course of the story, a strand at a time. Otherwise, why turn the page?

Lately, it seems every reality show out there is loaded with backstory. It doesn't matter if it's The Voice or The Bachelor, everyone puts together a backstory segment before they begin. It might be a promise made to a dying parent or sibling, it might be overcoming an alcohol or drug dependency, it might be having a child and realizing you're no longer a kid yourself. Whatever it is, it's the reason people get up in the morning and hone their craft. Whatever that craft may be. 

I confess I'm a closet fan of American Ninja Warrior. Totally buff men and women compete over a course of amazingly difficult obstacles to the finish line–the warped wall, a 14-1/2 foot tall wall they must scale and hit the buzzer.  Everyone starts out on equal footing, and there are no judges clouding the performance with their subjective ideas. The idea is very simple. If at any point along the way the person running the course can't complete an obstacle, they fall into the water below. 

I think that's the appeal to me. I listen to the backstories on all the contestants, and, if I like their story, I'll root for them to scale the warped wall. There's no one else making the decision for me, or holding their stories and their performance to a subjective standard other than my own. Some of the backstories among this group are wonderful, but, and it's probably due to the fact these are people who spend a lot of time honing their bodies, there seems to be excessive attention paid to their facial features, hair and bodies. If the only reason they have for participating is because they think they look good, I want to see them hit the water before the second obstacle. It doesn't matter how hard you've been training all year, one bad step can land you in the drink. It's fast-paced and quick to judgment, like me with these backstory segments. The course doesn't care. You bring your 'A' game or you go home wet. 

I'm like that in reading, too. If I get bogged down in too much backstory at the start of a book, I'll set it aside and move along to something else. There's so much out there that's good, why waste my time on something that has no appeal? Into the water it goes and I'm on to the next contestant. Maybe in this one, the backstory is handled better, giving the reader a glimpse of the impending conflict, but the conflict, when it is finally unveiled, isn't anything earth-shattering. The book made it over the first few obstacles, but still, it will end up in the drink. 

Recently, I served as a judge for the RONE awards and had to read seven books in short order. Only one of them made it up the warped wall and hit the buzzer for me. I thought about the story for days after I finished it, which is the mark (at least for me) of a great book. Now, my challenge is to write one equally as good. To have one of my own books make it up someone else's warped wall standard of excellence. 

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